FEARS have been raised that the River Itchen is under threat from pollutants.

Residents are worried that wildlife in the chalk stream is declining because of chemicals entering the water through salad-washing, but Alresford-based company Bakkavor, who run Alresford Salads, have dispute the claims.

A petition, which has garnered more than 5,000 signatures, states the aim is, “to stop the renewal licence allowing Bakkavor to dump their factory’s daily trade effluent containing a cocktail of potentially harmful chemicals into the head waters of the River Itchen”.

The company has applied to vary an environmental permit, but the details are currently unavailable from the Environment Agency.

The Daily Echo asked Bakkavor what chemicals were involved in the permit renewal application, and a company spokesperson said: “Bakkavor takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and we are proud of our record of ensuring the highest levels of environmental safety across our business.

“The petition started in relation to our permit renewal application to the Environment Agency contains misleading inaccuracies.

“Our Alresford Salads site is committed to washing all leaf product in non-chlorinated water and any water discharged from the site is filtered and treated to ensure it meets the exacting standards of the Environment Agency.

“We are happy to engage with the community on this issue to reassure them.”

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “Protecting the environment is at the forefront of our decision-making, and we take local concerns very seriously.

“Firms and private individuals with permits must meet the conditions set out in them. Safeguarding the area in and around rivers not an optional extra for them.

“The agency regularly monitors the release of waste water into the Itchen by Bakkavor Foods, as well as checking the river in general. The condition of this stretch of the Itchen is good or high, to a European standard. Research in 2017 showed fish and invertebrates numbers just a kilometre from Bakkavor as very high.

“We will continue to work with the company and others to improve the quality of the Itchen further.

“We are currently reviewing an application made by Bakkavor to vary its discharge permit, and we will take a number of factors into account before a final decision is made.”

Residents say they believe the river wildlife is declining because salad leaves are sprayed with chemicals abroad before being imported, which gets washed into the river.

Victoria Harrison from Ovington said: “It really is a problem. A lot of people are really worried about the state of the river because there are no fish left, or hardly any. It is not right.”

Jeremy Legge, executive director at Test and Itchen Association, said: “There have been concerns for some time about the effect of cress farming.

“The thing that seems most illogical to be doing is importing leaves. Watercress is the thing of greatest concern to our members.”

Graham Roberts, chairman of the Upper Itchen Initiative, said: “We are all worried that the Itchen is going downhill, not enough is being done to protect it.”